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ISSUE 119 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/24/2006

Facebook comments punished

By Stephanie Soucheray
Variety Editor


Friday, February 24, 2006

In recent months, the Dean of Student’s Office has punished fewer than one dozen students for posting threatening messages and pictures of illegal activities on facebook.com.

These incidents have caused many students on campus to grow concerned that St. Olaf administrators are using facebook.com, a website perceived to be student-oriented and outside of the campus-realm of discipline, to unfairly punish students for having fun.

"We do not monitor facebook. No one in our office patrols facebook.com," said LaRue Pierce, associate dean of students. "But if something is brought to our attention, whether it be in blogging, e-mail, IM, or facebook.com we have to follow a threat up if it jeopardizes the community."

Facebook.com, the Internet "cool book,” directory, dating service and general procrastination device is an online community of five million users. Anyone with a St. Olaf e-mail address can create a profile, make friends with other Oles and students from other campuses, and post personal information and pictures of themselves for others to access.

It is this last function of facebook.com that has caused problems for students who posted questionable comments or pictures on their page. Some students have been punished for posting pictures of themselves engaging in illegal drug use. Another student received a Level 3 violation after posting threatening marks about a Public Safety officer on a personal page.

Greg Kneser, dean of students, wanted to be clear that the St. Olaf administration does not try to look for infractions to discipline on facebook.com.

"We have dealt with what has come our way, what has been referred to us," Kneser said.

Kneser wanted to point out that an administrator can punish students for violations of the Code of Student Conduct made on facebook.com.

"Facebook does not protect anyone," Kneser said. "It’s just a medium. There is an assumption among students that because it takes place in cyberspace it doesn’t count. This is a misplaced trust in technology."

Kneser points to Article IV: General Student Regulations in the Code of Student Conduct as proof that St. Olaf can punish facebook.com offenses. The article states: "The college also reserves the right to itself to initiate disciplinary proceedings against students who … may have otherwise committed an action off campus which may be related to the security or safety of the college community or the integrity of the educational process or otherwise constitute a violation of the Code of Student Conduct."

Article VI: Proscribed Conduct, issue 15 d. states that students who break conduct rules on abuse, threats or harassment can be punished for indiscretions in "e-mail or other computer-based methods of communication."

St. Olaf is not the only college treading in these new murky waters of disciplining facebook.com offenses. The University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill and Syracuse University have both seen high-profile and litigious debates about facebook.com.

On Jan. 8, The New York Times ran a piece called "In Your Facebook.com," which addressed campus concerns of facebook.com abuse and misuse.

St. Olaf will see more and more facebook.com offenses as the online network grows. During the Feb. 9 meeting of the Board of Regents Students Committee, a presentation on facebook.com was made.

In the meeting, students presented what sort of personal information can be found on facebook.com (including phone numbers, addresses and birth dates) and what sort of online "groups" St. Olaf students are creating. Kneser has also prepared an informational letter about facebook.com for his forthcoming parent’s newsletter.

Kneser’s main concerns about facebook.com, however, are not about students harming others through the website, but rather students harming themselves by posting inappropriate pictures and inappropriate comments.

James Hanson, associate dean of students, echoed Kneser’s concern.

"My biggest concern with facebook.com is not policing," he said. "I’m more concerned that data can be used for a student’s harm. A student should know that what they put on facebook.com is open to anybody, including future employers or professors asked to write a students recommendation."





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